Government poised for waste planning rethink

The waste industry is questioning whether the concept of "best practicable environmental option" is helpful in planning policy and is calling for a review of its application. The Government accepts that the approval of planning applications for waste management facilities is being hindered by current BPEO guidance.

Guidance for English local authorities on the preparation of "waste local plans" and on planning decisions for waste facilities is included in planning policy guidance PPG10, issued in 1999 (ENDS Report 296, p 40 ).

The guidance includes a definition of BPEO and says the preferred policies in waste local plans should be consistent with it, but it does not include guidance on how to determine BPEO. One option used by some developers and planning authorities is to use the Environment Agency's life-cycle assessment software, WISARD.

At the regional and local level, BPEO can prove to be a major hurdle for planning applications for particular facilities. For example, the BPEO for a county or region would probably include a mix of capacity for landfill disposal, recycling, composting and perhaps incineration or mechanical/biological treatment. But it is more difficult to apply the concept of BPEO in determining need for individual waste facilities.

The Government has now decided that the current concept of BPEO does not work at the site-specific level. In particular, last November's overturning by the High Court of a planning permission granted to Derbyshire Waste for an extension of its Glapwell landfill near Chesterfield is seen as so demanding that it opens up a wide range of theoretical alternatives to the facility being considered.

Speaking at a regional waste summit for the South East in March, Lester Hicks of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: "In recent months the concept has been interpreted by the courts in a rather restrictive way."

At the same conference, Kent's strategy planning director, Peter Raine, warned that "BPEO makes planning almost unworkable. It's almost as difficult to get permission for a green waste windrow as for a major bloody motorway."

The Environmental Services Association agrees. "The time has come to review the principle and application of BPEO at every level," said chief executive Dirk Hazell. "We need to look at its relationship with other tools, such as environmental impact assessment."

Any change in the application of BPEO will be spelt out in two forthcoming policy documents. The first, a revised version of the national waste strategy, is due in 2005. Work on the second, PPS10, which will supersede PPG10, is also under way.

A third document which will influence planning decisions for waste facilities is the Government's long overdue study of the environmental and health impacts of different waste management options, originally announced in November 2002. Mr Hicks told delegates that the study "could provide a standard view so we don't have to go back to basics with every planning application."

Warning that the South East alone needs planning approvals for 800 facilities over the next 11 years if it is to meet its waste management targets, Mr Hicks said: "The Government needs to comment on the number of facilities needed nationally." This, together with Government guidance on the health risks associated with facilities, could give councillors the courage to support politically unpopular applications.

Meanwhile, further evidence that the planning system is unlikely to deliver the facilities that councils will need to meet their landfill diversion targets comes from a study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The study highlights a raft of problems with the planning system and other barriers to gaining planning approval for waste facilities.

Ten years after the implementation of the plan-led system, many local authorities have still not adopted waste local plans. Only two-thirds of the adopted plans in the South East make any kind of commitment to site locations, as recommended by PPG10.

The lack of coordination between the preparation of waste local plans, municipal waste strategies and the negotiation of waste management contracts means that adopted plans may not take into account the needs of a future contract, or capacity to fulfil contracts may enter the planning system before a plan has been adopted.

The system can be very slow, the study points out. On average, applications for waste facilities take 22 weeks to determine. More applications are being made for facilities on sites that do not currently have a waste use. The evidence suggests that these have less chance of success than those on sites with current or historic waste use.

Industry appeals are rare and successful appeals rarer still. "The low level of success deters companies from appealing against decisions even where there may be good grounds to do so," the RICS report says. But public opposition has produced more judicial reviews and challenges in the High Court.